Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Vintage Departures)

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Bango! Tom Wolfe Surfs the Net

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Tom Wolfe’s 16th book, The Kingdom of Speech, begins with the author “surfing the net” (he was born in 1931) and discovering a highly unusual article in which the world’s experts on the study of language evolution announce that they don’t really understand language evolution at all.

This small book is written in Wolfe’s trademark New Journalism style, which has lost none of its lip-smacking pep, its wild associative leaps, or its fondness for exclamation points. But this time, the author never leaves his chair. Anyone with a Wi-Fi connection could have conducted all of the research in The Kingdom of Speech. If you want close encounters with Merry Pranksters and Black Panthers and daredevil astronauts, you’ll have to try Wolfe’s other 15 books.

The Kingdom of Speech is a dual portrait of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky, with special attention paid to the two little Davids who (in Wolfe’s telling) felled those Goliaths. If you don’t already have a strong opinion of Darwin, Wolfe will happily give you his. Wolfe thinks Darwin was a fraud, a snob, a cheater, and an asshole. And he doesn’t like Chomsky much better.

The trouble starts when Darwin (in Wolfe’s telling) steals the idea of natural selection from another man, Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin can do this is because he is a proper English gentleman, with an impressive education and wealthy friends, whereas Alfred Russel Wallace is a mere naturalist, a “flycatcher” spotting bugs and taking notes in the Malaysian jungle. Darwin and his wealthy friends are “in a position” to take Wallace’s research and give all the credit to Darwin. So they do. What a bunch of snobby cheaters, right? Wolfe certainly thinks so.
Even their blandest comments piped out UPPER CLASS! UPPER CLASS! without bringing up the subject of class at all.
According to Wolfe, Darwin was not so much a scientist as a religious figure, preaching his own personal “cosmogony.” A cosmogony is a Theory of Everything that unlocks the secrets of the universe, like the Navajo creation myth, or string theory. Although his ideas captivate London’s upper crust and storm the ivory tower (thanks to his influential friends), Darwin basically pulled the evidence for evolution out of his ass. When his students ask him to explain where the first “cells” came from, Darwin pauses for a long time before giving his feeble, tautological response: “probably from four or five cells floating in a warm pool somewhere.”
In this respect, Darwinism was typical of the more primitive cosmogonies. They avoided the question of how the world developed ex nihilo. Darwin often thought about it, but it made his head hurt. The world was just…here.
Are you wondering how Wolfe is able to report that Darwin’s head was hurting during this particular historical moment? You should try not to wonder about such things when you read The Kingdom of Speech, because Wolfe makes a habit of turning all the “great men” of history into straw men. Here’s how he depicts Sir Charles Lyell conspiring with “Charlie” Darwin to steal the glory from Alfred Russel Wallace:
Oh, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie…said Lyell, shaking his head. Who was it who warned you two years ago about this fellow Wallace? Who was it who told you you’d better get busy and publish this pet theory of yours?…So why should I even bother, this late in the game?

But…we are Gentlemen and old pals, after all…and I think I know of a way to get you out of this predicament. It so happens there is a meeting of the Linnean Society, postponed from last month in deference to the death of one of our beloved former Linnean presidents, coming up thirteen days from now, July 1. Unfortunately, we don’t have any way to notify Wallace in time, do we. But that’s not our fault. We didn’t schedule the meeting. That’s just the way it goes sometimes. We’ll bring our good friend Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, the botanist, in on this. All three of us are on the society’s council. We can make the whole thing seem like the most routine scholarly meeting in the world.
Am I the only person who pictures Lyell, in this scene, as Gargamel, the villain from The Smurfs, rubbing his hands together in a dark forest while he plots his next evil scheme? It seems profoundly inappropriate for Wolfe to write a book about scientific research in which most of his arguments are based on invented scenes, biased characterizations, and witty insults. New Journalism was about the author asserting himself in the story by becoming a part of it. But when Wolfe stays in his chair, he becomes just another elderly man shouting at his computer. This is not entirely a bad thing — nobody shouts at his computer quite like Tom Wolfe.

By the time Noam Chomsky appears, The Kingdom of Speech has established its pattern. Chomsky is Darwin — the brash, beloved intellectual whose singular epiphany lights up the intellectual world. Daniel Everett is Alfred Russel Wallace — the lowly “flycatcher,” hunting for linguistic evidence among isolated Amazon tribes.

Before he turned into the grandpa of the American left, Chomsky rose to fame for his pioneering work as a linguist. His boldest and most influential claim was that all humans are born with the ability to learn language encoded in their brains. It’s biological. Decades of linguistic research took Chomsky’s assertion as truth, and countless careers were built upon exploring it. Then Daniel Everett, the “flycatcher,” found a tribe in the Amazon whose language didn’t match any of Chomsky’s predictions about the shared structure of language in our brains, and all hell broke loose. Now it seems that the ability to learn language is not biological; instead it is cultural, a tool that humans create together, like a broom or a toaster oven. Decades of linguistic research are going down the drain.

If you’re interested in this story — and you should be, because it’s fascinating — you should check out John Colapinto’s New Yorker article and Daniel Everett’s book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. That’s what Wolfe did — long passages of The Kingdom of Speech are mostly summaries of those two sources.

The publishing company behind The Kingdom of Speech describes it as “a captivating, paradigm-shifting argument that speech — not evolution — is responsible for humanity’s complex societies and achievements.” That’s bullshit. Wolfe doesn’t even begin to make an argument about the role of speech in human society until page 163 of this 169-page book.
Bango! One bright night it dawned on me — not as a profound revelation, not as any sort of analysis at all, but as something so perfectly obvious, I could hardly believe that no licensed savant had ever pointed it out before. There is a cardinal distinction between man and animal, a sheerly dividing line as abrupt and immovable as a cliff: namely, speech.
Bango! What’s insane about Wolfe’s climactic epiphany is how hypocritical it is. For the past 163 pages he has accused Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky of being frauds because their grand scientific breakthroughs were (in Wolfe’s telling) just a hunch. Wolfe compares Darwin’s writing, unfavorably, to Rudyard Kipling’s stories of the jungle — but at least Kipling had the decency to call his work fiction. As for Darwin’s theory of evolution, “it was still a story. It was not evidence. In short, it was sincere, but sheer, literature.” When Wolfe calls Darwin’s The Descent of Man “a real tour de force of literary imagination,” he means it as an insult. And yet here is Wolfe, at the conclusion of his own book, announcing his own grand scientific breakthrough with nothing but Bango! as evidence.

What the hell is going on here?

Is Wolfe aware of the irony that he, a noted literary figure, is faulting Darwin and Chomsky for being literary figures? Does he really believe that science has no place for personal epiphanies and leaps of faith? Has he ever heard of a “hypothesis?” Will he refuse to believe in black holes until some intrepid writer gets sucked into one and returns to Earth with a cosmic shard of New Journalism?

Honestly, I don’t know. The Kingdom of Speech never blinks, never reveals a coherent motive. It’s either a clever, two-faced provocation, or the dumbest thing Wolfe has ever written.

If he were so inclined, Wolfe could have used The Kingdom of Speech to ask colossally interesting questions like, “What does Everett’s claim that language is cultural, not biological, say about our understanding of humanity?” Or, “Even if Chomsky is wrong in saying that language evolved in our bodies, what other, valid discoveries did his theory inspire?”

The Kingdom of Speech pretends to be a treatise on language evolution, but it’s really just an old-fashioned underdog story. Wolfe puts intellectual giants in a boxing ring with hard-working little guys, and then he cheers like crazy for the little guys.
[Everett] was an old-fashioned flycatcher inexplicably here in the midst of modern air-conditioned armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts.
Bizarrely, that’s not the only time Wolfe mocks Chomsky for having air conditioning, as if it’s the source of all weakness and corruption. From its wildest accusations to its smallest details, The Kingdom of Speech turns “the intellectual status battle” between entrenched theories and upstart discoveries into a wild spectator sport.

And I loved it! I loved reading it. Where else can find a whole paragraph of pyrotechnic prose about how Darwin was such a lazy writer that he based all his metaphors on the family dog? Maybe I wasn’t born in 1931, but I’m pretty sure The Kingdom of Speech is what used to be known as “a hoot.” Never have I been so entertained by such a shoddy argument.

And somehow, that effect feels brilliant. Whether it was Wolfe’s intention or not, The Kingdom of Speech offers strong evidence that fiction and sheer personality always win in the end.

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